Gravel Bikes

Gravel Bikes, do you need one?

It’s probably not escaped your notice, but gravel bikes are big, and it’s not just the bikes. Along with the bikes a whole industry has grown up to the feed this new monster. From clothes to kit to events, so many things are now ‘gravel specific’, but what is a gravel bike and do you need one?

Gravel bikes, what are they and do you need one?
Gravel bikes, what are they and do you need one?

Type in “what is a gravel bike?” into a search-engine and you’ll get something along the lines of “it’s a drop-bar bike designed for mixed surface riding”. Others will mention their “versatility” and that they’re “not as good as bikes designed for a specific type of riding“. Some will also tell you it’s a “bike designed for gravel riding“; not the most illuminating of answers!

Various countries claim they invented the gravel bike, the US being the most vociferous. The truth is bikes started off as gravel bikes, as that was what most roads were in the good ol’ days. As roads became better, bikes changed to reflect that, becoming lighter with narrower tyres. However riders still rode on gravel roads all over the world, either for fun or because that’s what was available. Once the MTB arrived however, most riders switched to it for their off-road rides. It was only a few Rough Stuff die-hards and cyclo-crossers that kept riding drop-bar bikes off-road.

All knowing guru?

I’m sure somewhere there is an all-knowing guru that can tell you exactly when and where gravel began, but I’m just going to give you my version. I became a ‘proper’ cyclist in the ’70s, riding on the track and road alongside my father and brother. Then MTBs blew into town and my head was turned! Next I started riding cyclo-cross, still on an MTB.

Before gravel bikes we rode anything. In this case an old rigid MTB with skinny tyres!
Before gravel bikes we rode anything. In this case an old rigid MTB with skinny tyres!

I also rode Trailquest events, in which you had to find hidden spots on a map for points. Finding the quickest route between points meant you were riding on and off-road. So a bike that was fast across both surfaces was an advantage. The same organisers also ran a series called CX Sportives. You could ride these on whatever bike you wanted, as the courses mixed road and trail. You can see why I was starting to think, “what’s the best bike for this sort of stuff?”

A proper ‘cross bike

Finally I bought myself a proper ‘cross bike, a Handsling CXC. This carbon-fibre beauty made much more sense for the kind of riding I was doing. It was light, fast and strong. During the winter I was racing in the local cyclo-cross league, then when the season ended, I could use it for gravel sportives and general mucking about.

I also realised that it was more than capable when fitted with a set of road tyres. I could use it for my commute to work and for the Sunday club-run. Also the off-road riding around my part of Sussex is very suitable for this kind of bike, nothing too technical or gnarly. I now had a do-it-all bike! Ok, I’ll come clean, I also still had a road bike, an MTB, a track bike, another road bike – you get the picture – but the CXC was the one that was getting the most use.

What does a gravel bike look like?

By now gravel, was becoming a thing. Where before most of us were just using our ‘cross bikes or MTBs with skinny tyres, now gravel-specific bikes were available. What made them different from a cyclo-cross bike? Cyclo-cross bikes generally had narrower tyre clearances, because in races tyres were limited to 35mm. Gravel bikes made a point of their ability to accept much wider rubber.

Wider rubber and clearances made off-roading easier

Using wider tyres allows you to run lower pressures. Lower pressure in a wider tyre equals more comfort and more grip. Those rattly gravelly roads now became a little smoother and you had more grip available on rooty climbs. Additionally we then discovered that wider tyres were actually faster, due to science! Improved tyre technology also now meant your fat tyre didn’t feel so sluggish on the black stuff. So riding between or to your gravel wasn’t a rumbly chore. Add in tubeless and tyre-liners – both used by MTBers for years – and their off-road performance just keeps improving.

Those wider clearances also came in handy during the winter. For those that are mad enough to enjoy riding through muddy conditions, this was great. Earlier ‘cross bikes could become clogged with mud, not a problem when you can change bikes every lap in a race. When riding out in the lanes however, your bike could become so clogged that you were reduced to pushing. You could now ride narrower tyres and not have your bike clog up with thick mud, thanks to the extra clearance.

Slender seat-stays, no brake-bridge and fat tyres, all make for a better bike off-road

Geometry differences

Geometry also differed, with ‘cross bikes being more aggressive as they are designed for an hour of full-gas racing. Gravel bike geometry tended to be a little more upright and slacker, as riders were heading out for longer. Although, with gravel racing on the increase, bikes are starting to split again between those that race and those that just want to ride. In fact if you do start looking at gravel bikes, you will see some brands focus more on one style of riding. My own bike is definitely on the racy side, as that’s what I enjoy. Maybe I’ll move to something a little more relaxed when I finally hang up my race wheels? Want a bit more geometry? Try these links; BikeRadar, CyclingNews.

Improved braking thanks to disc brakes, made gravel bikes safer off-road
Improved braking thanks to disc brakes, made gravel bikes safer off-road


Additionally, with bike-packing now becoming popular, gravel bikes began to sprout multiple mounting points for extra bottles and load-carrying. These more relaxed bikes now became the perfect frame for tourists loading up for the long-haul over less than perfect surfaces. Those wider tyres also helped, supporting the extra weight while still being fast and comfortable.

This is the kind of mellow off-road that gravel bikes love. Blue skies help!
This is the kind of mellow off-road that gravel bikes love. Blue skies help!

What if you don’t want to race, or disappear into the great unknown for months at a time? Is there a gravel bike for you? Of course there is! A gravel bike is perfect for short jaunts around the local area. You could head out on the road to a local trail, ride it, hop back on to the road to another trail, before heading back home. And all on the same bike, without the road sections feeling slow or the off-road parts being impossible. Then, when the weekend is over, your gravel bike becomes your daily commuter.

What about the gnarly stuff?

When it comes to more aggressive off-road riding, my MTB definitely handles it better. Front suspension, 29″ wheels and 2.4″ tyres make rocky chutes a lot easier to handle. I can ride them on a gravel bike, just not as fast. For example, one of my favourite rides is the CX Century, a 100 mile off-road route across the South Downs. Although it’s called a CX event, riders can use any bike and I’ve ridden it on both MTB and gravel bike. The MTB makes for a more comfortable ride, but the gravel bike is faster!

Gravel bikes on holiday allow you to tackle any road
Gravel bikes on holiday allow you to tackle any road

Carbon worries?

If you’re worried about longevity with carbon, I still use my original CXC for all my road training now. It’s almost 10 years old now and I’ve raced almost every ‘cross season with it. It’s also been used for many CX sportives, tackled the CX Century seven times. During that time it’s also been used as a commuter and trainer as well. I think that’s a pretty good recommendation for a material that some think is too fragile for long-term use. While others will wax lyrical about the ‘feel’ of steel and titanium, I find it hard to beat carbon’s ride.

So what about the question I asked back at the beginning, do you need a gravel bike?

For me the answer is an unequivocal YES! I love my Handsling CEXevo and the riding I use it for, from the local ‘cross league to UCI Gravel World Series events. When I’m not using it for races, I ride my local trails. These tend to be of the non-gnarly type and perfect for a gravel bike.

I also use my gravel bike instead of my old, steel ‘hack’ bike. Having a fast, nimble bike for winter training, that can take wide tyres and mudguards is so nice. The wide tyres soak up the terrible road surfaces and the mudguards keep me clean; winter riding doesn’t have to be a chore.

The UCI now run an international race series for gravel bikes
The UCI now run an international race series for gravel bikes

So if you are thinking of getting a gravel bike, I’d say ‘do it!’ You’ll open a new world of hidden trails that you’ve probably been riding past and never knew were there. You can jump onto those and avoid that busy road section, maybe open a whole new region to ride in. Or try a little overnight adventure, or something more adventurous? Maybe you could join me and try ‘cross or a gravel race? These events tend to be a lot more relaxed and inclusive than traditional road races for some people. And the terrain is a lot less scary than MTB!

If the worse was to happen and I was told that I could only have one bike, what would I choose?

If I had to choose one bike? I already have! The Handsling CEXevo

It would have to be the gravel bike. Swapping tyres allows me to choose where I ride. The carbon frame and geometry make for a fast bike on road. Adding racks would allow me to go touring, add mudguards and lights and I have a commuter. I’d even be happy to race it on the road. I can head out and pick and choose from all kinds of riding, I’m no longer a roadie or MTBer; I’m just a rider. So come the day the one bike-one owner rule is announced, I know what I’ll be riding.

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